Historical drama film review, pt 2 of ?: The Lion in Winter

Why can’t I find any good covers in English? Whatever, here’s the German version

For the second film in this historical drama review series, it’s a festive one. A family Christmas movie, what could be nicer than that? Except this is about possibly the worst, most uncomfortable family Christmas holiday in history.

The Lion in Winter, directed by Anthony Harvey and filmed in 1968, is an adaptation of a stage play about King Henry II of England, his wife Queen Eleanor (aka Eleanor of Aquitaine), their three sons, Richard, John, and Geoffrey, and the fate of Henry’s Angevin Empire, stretching throughout England and much of modern-day France. Over Christmas 1183 near the end of his long reign, Henry calls his three sons to his main base of operations in Chinon for a feast, also sending invitations to Queen Eleanor (locked away in a castle after she tried to overthrow him) and King Philip II of France. The purpose of this feast naturally isn’t just to eat and get drunk and celebrate Christmas, but really to resolve the question of succession and sort out some long-running territorial disputes with the French king.

Henry wants his favorite son John to inherit his throne, but he knows he won’t have his way easily. The French king has his own demands to make, both relating to lands held by Henry bordering his own and the status of his sister Alais, currently Henry’s mistress but promised to marry the future English king in exchange for a dowry. But Henry’s greatest rival is his wife, Eleanor, who wants Richard as king instead. Despite her status as a woman in medieval Europe, not the best time and place to be a woman, Eleanor was famously formidable and influential, a political match for Henry, and years of luxurious imprisonment in a castle seem to have made her all the more determined to get her way instead.

The Lion in Winter is a legendary film and rightfully so. There’s a massive amount of acting talent here, from the leads Peter O’Toole as Henry and Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor to the supporting cast Anthony Hopkins as Richard, Timothy Burton as Philip — the two guys I’m more familiar with — and John Castle as Geoffrey, Nigel Terry as John, and Jane Merrow as Alais, the three I’m not so familiar with. They’re all excellent, most of all O’Toole and Hepburn, who get the opportunity to depict two giant personalities and do such a great job that it’s hard not to imagine the two as the real Henry and Eleanor if I ever read about them outside the context of this film (and O’Toole also played a younger Henry II in Becket, so he’s absolutely confirmed as Henry anyway.)

The quality doesn’t stop at the acting — the script is near-constant scheming and counter-scheming, broken up by a few excellent monologues and one unexpected fight scene at the very end, but all gripping. The score is great as well, from the opening theme (I know “Dies irae” but the rest of the Latin is over my head, extremely fitting though) all the way to the ending.

I highly recommend The Lion in Winter to anyone. You don’t have to have any background in medieval European politics to get what’s going on in the film; it’s all explained, and even though it involves politics and war, it’s really a family drama. If you thought the British royal family in the 21st century was dysfunctional, they’re nothing compared to how they were in the 12th. Once again I can’t speak much to the historical accuracy of the film, though this time it doesn’t feel like it matters so much. It’s more historically accurate than Disney’s Adventures of Robin Hood anyway, and that film was the only exposure I had to Plantagenet England as a kid.*

I don’t have much personal experience to tie into the film this time given the fact that I’m not English or French nobility and wasn’t around anywhere close to 800 years ago, so I’ll leave it there. Watch this movie, there’s my judgment. There was a remake released in 2003 starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, and while they’re both also excellent actors, it’s hard to imagine anything living up to the original. But maybe it’s good too. Hard to imagine it’s not, considering Stewart and Close and the quality of the script.


* For a look at how influential that movie apparently was, when I ran a search for The Lion in Winter in Google I got this:

Let’s set aside the fact that Audrey Hepburn wasn’t in the movie (yeah, it’s confusing her with Katharine for some reason — both great actresses but come on Google.) King John gets so little respect that he doesn’t even get a proper portrait, instead being relegated to his pathetic lion form from Robin Hood. I’d say poor guy, but he was a shitty king anyway. Though his brother Richard wasn’t the best king either from the accounts I’ve read, so whatever. History gets all mixed up with myth and legend, especially after 800 years.

But fun fact: Henry II was responsible for a lot of legal reform in England following the general assholishness of William I and his kids and the Anarchy that followed Henry I’s death, to the point that he helped establish a lot of the English common law that American legal standards are based on. That was certainly a step up in terms of kingship, but it also means he’s the reason our profession is so full of weird old Norman French and why I had to learn about the fucking confusing fee tail in Property that nobody uses anymore. Thanks Henry.

Historical drama film review, pt 1 of ?: Gettysburg

This is the cover of the Italian version, first one I could find that wasn’t 100×150

Something entirely new this month to go along with this Blaugust challenge, why not? I love history, and I’ve seen some historical dramas I have opinions about, so here we go, starting with 1993’s Gettysburg.

When I was a kid, Gettysburg was one of my favorite movies. This epic-scale Civil War film was a massive undertaking, an ambitious made-for-TV production headed by director Ron Maxwell and TV mogul and producer Ted Turner, back in the 90s when such films didn’t have anywhere near the resources film projects on streaming services do now.

I rewatched Gettysburg recently after probably 20 years out of curiosity, partly to see how well it would hold up. For non-Americans who didn’t grow up with this story (or for Americans who slept through history class) the Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in the American Civil War, a bloody three-day battle in July 1863 that ended in over 50,000 casualties altogether and the defeat and retreat of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces out of Pennsylvania and off of their path towards Washington D.C. — one of the very few times the southerners were able to fight into the north and threaten northern cities and the national capital itself. While the war continued for two more years, the rebels were almost entirely on the defensive from that point until their ultimate defeat at the hands of the new Union commander Ulysses S. Grant (and his friend General Sherman, most infamous in Georgia for his ruthless effectiveness.)

Sounds like it would make for a good film, and it mostly does. Gettysburg features a lot of excellent acting, among the best Martin Sheen as Lee (apparently a controversial choice but I thought he was great — doesn’t look much like the man himself but who cares), Tom Berenger as his chief subordinate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Col. Joshua Chamberlain, and Stephen Lang as the flamboyant and doomed southern divisional commander Maj. Gen. George Pickett.

The film also did a nice job of balancing the northern and southern perspectives, though my favorite scenes are those involving the 20th Maine regiment commanded by Chamberlain, the very guy who ordered a last-ditch bayonet charge that saved the second day and potentially the entire battle for the Union. Most of the battle scenes don’t feel like they hold up all that well, with a lot of what looks like milling around/light jogging, but I think the acting carries it all well enough, and plenty of the film focuses on personal relationships between the higher officers anyway both within and between the two sides.

This film is based on a historical novel I haven’t read, The Killer Angels, and apparently both that novel and this film were so popular that they went a long way towards rehabilitating the military reputation of Longstreet, who objected to and argued against the disastrous Lee-ordered massive charge on the final day of the battle but was nevertheless long blamed for the loss.

It’s surprising just how much drama still surrounds this battle and its figures even to this day — the above-mentioned charge (only led in part by Pickett despite its popular name) ended in slaughter for the southerners, and it’s interesting to think about how history might have changed if they’d succeeded against the odds that day or had been able to break through and flank the 20th Maine the previous day.

For obvious reasons, it’s a good thing they failed that day considering the possible consequences of a Confederate victory at Gettysburg, but even so it’s still a sore spot with some southerners. I speak even from personal experience here — most of my American family is from the South, and I know for a fact I had ancestors who served in some Confederate army or other, though none as the kinds of high officers depicted in Gettysburg (they were dirt-poor farmers who would later in the century end up in county court records for illicitly producing and/or trading moonshine, a family tradition I’m far more okay with.) I never heard any complaining about this stuff from my own family, but I’ve lived around a few parts of the South and you see and hear shit, enough to understand there’s some leftover and certainly misdirected bitterness that’s mixed up with modern economic stress.

I can’t speak too much to the accuracy of the film. From what I hear it’s pretty faithful to the events of the battle, even if it doesn’t depict all the important engagements, though considering just how many engagements took place over those three days it couldn’t possibly do so anyway. But I’m not a Civil War expert, so I leave that aspect of the analysis to those guys. The more important point for me is that Gettysburg in general feels pretty honest, with at least some focus on the bigger political picture. From what I’ve heard, Mr. Maxwell’s followup Civil War drama Gods and Generals might fail on this point by lionizing the Confederate cause and Stonewall Jackson in particular. Jackson is a strange and fascinating figure and was an impressive military talent and so he’s well worth a look, but any puffing up of that cause he fought for at all has to ignore the fact that preservation of slavery was the driving force of secession — that’s entirely what the “states’ rights” issue rested on.

But that’s still a whole massive debate here in the States that rages on to this day, no fucking joke. And this is coming from a sort-of southerner here, or at least halfway a southerner by experience and family connection, and plenty of us say it’s well past time to move the hell on. It’s a tragedy that a ton of soldiers died in any of these armies, but I guarantee the people using the war for political purposes today don’t give a shit about that. Especially not when a few of these very same assholes are likely going to be representatives in the party controlling the House next year according to the polls, God help us.

I’d say “not to get political” here, but it is political; it can’t be avoided — rewriting of the history books to paper over past American injustices is quite literally part of their platform, and there are related and extremely heavy problems mixed up with that I won’t get into in this post. But it’s worth noting that historically the memorials went up and the state flags were changed to commemorate the old “Lost Cause” when the civil rights movements were gaining momentum.

Anyway, I haven’t watched and can’t speak directly about Gods and Generals — all I can say is that Gettysburg doesn’t really fall into that trap too much, maybe aside from one exchange (the guy from Tennessee who’s just fighting for his rats — if you’ve seen it you know the scene) and a bit of complaining from a few southern generals in conversation that you can imagine they would have done anyway, so it’s placed in its proper context. Gettysburg is a good period piece with great acting, and I’d say it’s still worth a watch, even with some of its more dated aspects.

Now I wonder how many readers I’ve pissed off somehow, since this is a controversial subject. Or maybe nobody actually cares? I have no idea, but it’s probably fine — I know how cultured everyone who reads this site is. But put in a comment and we can talk if you feel like it. Tomorrow I’ll get back to something lighter, but I’m not done with the historical dramas.

Online book translation review: Seventeen Parts 1 and 2 by Kenzaburo Oe

[Edit: thanks to a commenter below for pointing out that the link to this translation of Oe’s works is dead. In fact, it looks like Tokyo Damage Report, the blog it was originally hosted on, is dead, which is a damn shame. 

Edit pt. 2: I posted links through web.archive.org to the original posts down in the comments below. This seems to be the best I can do. If someone can find a more organized (or better? No idea about that) translation please post a comment, because these really are interesting works.]

Seventeen Part 1, the first part of a short two-part novel by Kenzaburo Oe, stirred up so much trouble in his home country of Japan that the publisher was threatened with death by far-right political groups (uyoku dantai) if the second part were brought out.  Thankfully, both Seventeen and Death of a Political Youth, the second part of the tale (renamed and published almost in secret to avoid a violent backlash) have been translated into English and posted on the blog Tokyo Damage Report.  Oe’s work taken as a whole is funny, sad, and horribly depressing all at once and is well worth a read, assuming the reader has a strong stomach.

Before we look at Seventeen, though, we need to travel back to the year 1960. Japan was still in the process of rebuilding after the destruction of World War II and hosted (as it still does) a large US military presence. The constitutional monarchy re-established by the Allies after the war ended allowed various parties, both on the right and the left, to get back into the game of politics and to openly debate the role of Japan in the world. Many of these debates reflected the capitalist/nationalist vs. socialist/communist divide of the Cold War, and naturally, this stirred up a lot of student political activity, both on the left and right.

On October 12, 1960, in the midst of this tension, a 17 year-old nationalist student activist named Otoya Yamaguchi rushed the stage of a televised speech in a lecture hall in Tokyo and ran a traditional samurai sword through the speaker, Socialist Party chairman and Diet representative Inejiro Asanuma, killing him almost instantly.

A photographer captured the assassination as it happened. (Source: Yasushi Nagao - © 1960 United Press International)

This photograph looks staged, but it’s not.  The assassination as it happened.  (Source: Yasushi Nagao – © 1960 United Press International)

Shortly after the assassination and Yamaguchi’s jail cell suicide a few weeks later, the novelist Kenzaburo Oe wrote a novel about the whole incident – told from the perspective of the young assassin.  The first half of Seventeen, released in 1961, tells the story of the protagonist, a high school student who has just turned 17 years old.  The main character and narrator of this tale calls himself “Seventeen”, and his age does contribute a lot to the story.  Seventeen is an awkward, perpetually pissed off kid.  His family is generally is cold and distant and his elder sister loathes him (for good reason – he flips out in Chapter 1 and gives her a severe eye injury during an argument.)  After poking his sister’s eye out, Seventeen exiles himself to a shed in his family’s backyard where he sleeps, broods, and mopes about his problems.)  Seventeen’s school life is miserable, and his only friend is a stray cat that stop by his shed sometimes.

So far, with the possible exception of the eye-poking, this sounds like a pretty typical coming of age story about an awkward teenager.  In most of these kinds of stories, the teenage protagonist comes to some kind of revelation about himself and grows as a person (see Catcher In The Rye for the classic example.)  Our protagonist here also comes to a revelation about himself, but it leads him to a bloody end.  Seventeen is a coming of age tragedy.

The first half of Seventeen plays out almost like a teenage comedy, complete with dick jokes.  However, halfway through the first part, Seventeen discovers meaning in an uyoku, or far-right nationalist, group, where he finds like-minded friends.  At this point, the story takes a serious turn for the political.  Seventeen also finds that his new status as a right-wing activist has earned him a degree of fear, if not of respect, from classmates and teachers who previously just despised him.  As a fervent young nationalist, Seventeen soon finds himself at the front line of a street fight with left-wing students during a series of protests in Tokyo against the renewal of a controversial US-Japan security treaty.  The second part of Seventeen, Death of a Political Youth, is far more serious than the first part and pretty much depicts Seventeen’s descent into insanity, his assassination of an unnamed left-wing politician as he makes a televised speech, and his short stay in prison before he kills himself.  (Note that this isn’t really a spoiler – it’s exactly what happened to the real-life politician Asanuma and his assassin Yamaguchi.)

Of course, there’s no way to know exactly what was in Yamaguchi’s mind when he decided to kill Asanuma.  But we do know that he was motivated by nationalist sentiment, and Oe’s work parodies that movement – much of the second part of the novel involves Seventeen obsessing over and seeing visions of “the Emperor” – not the actual living Emperor (then Hirohito) but some kind of idealized figure, more like God than a mere human.  In fact, reading Seventeen in 2016, especially in the West, reminds me of the kind of religious fanaticism that seems to inspire violent acts – both of the jihadi and of the extremist Christian anti-government variety.*  Seventeen’s fanaticism doesn’t seem very different.

An uyoku van. The writing on the van are political slogans.

An uyoku van.  These vans are driven around by uyoku guys who dress in paramilitary uniforms and shout at people. The writing on the van is right-wing political stuff.

It should be noted that the right wing in Japan also had a literary side to it, and writers like Yukio Mishima did a lot to push the nationalist agenda (he’s a good writer as well and is well worth a read, despite his weird retro views on worshipping the Emperor and all that stuff.  He also tried to overthrow the Japanese government in 1970 with a group of five other guys and committed actual medieval hardcore ritual suicide with a sword when he failed.  Mishima was somewhat nuts.)

Anyway, if all the above stuff sounds interesting to you, here are the links to the translations.  The translator does an interesting job with the writing.  He’s definitely going for the “feeling” of the text more than literal accuracy. I very much doubt that Oe included the phrase “Shake that ass!” in his original work. But I don’t mind. Also, this seems to be the only English translation of Death of a Political Youth around, so if you want to read it and can’t read Japanese, you don’t actually have a choice in the matter.


Death of a Political Youth


*If you don’t live in the United States, you might not know about this strain of fanaticism – I’m not sure how much it really exists outside of the US.  Eric Rudolph (the 1996 Olympics bomber) was one of these bastards.

Seven questions that apparently need answering

One of my favorite things about having a blog (now that I’m actually writing on it again, I mean) is that you can occasionally see what kinds of search terms bring people to your articles and posts.  Some of these terms are pretty mundane and expected.  My post on Shin Megami Tensei IV’s alignment system has gotten a lot of views from people search google for ways to get on the various paths to achieve certain endings (by the way, sorry that I don’t actually tell you how to get on each path in that post – I’m a really useful writer like that.) The terms there are pretty standard – “smt iv chaos route”, for example.

However, some search terms I find are just puzzling. Some of them are quite understandable in meaning and purpose, but I have no clue why Google decided one of my posts could answer their search query because they sure as hell weren’t anything I ever talked about. Others are truly bizarre. Since I can’t imagine these people got the answers they were looking for at my blog, I thought I’d take a selection of these search terms out of my stats page and address them one by one.

1) how early in a.m. can i get fried chicken at piggly wiggly

I have no idea. A better question would be why the hell you’re getting fried chicken at Piggly Wiggly when it is injected with something that they refuse to specify on the box. Also, if you have a Piggly Wiggly nearby, I’m willing to bet you also live near a Publix, and Publix fried chicken is about a thousand times better. Go to Publix instead.

2) why ummayyad consider as irreligious

This might have been directed to my now dead post about Damascus, where the Umayyad Mosque still stands (hopefully, at least.) Damascus was also the center of the somewhat short-lived Umayyad dynasty, which ruled most of the 7th-8th century Islamic empire following the death of the last of the “Four Good Caliphs”, Ali. The Umayyads were the first to establish a traditional father => son dynasty over the empire – initially, caliphs had been chosen by election and thus were pretty smart and capable guys (hence the “Good Caliphs” tag they are honored with.) The Umayyad caliphs, as tradition goes, were a bunch of no-good dirty bastards who enjoyed wine and women and all that sort of thing. That’s probably why they were overthrown in the 8th century by the Abbasid dynasty, though a branch of the Umayyads did escape to Spain to rule al-Andalus for a few centuries. But that’s your answer.

3) can you have more than one of the same demon in your party smt 4

Not sure whether I did address this, but the answer is no, you can’t.

4) anime that religious people really hate

This is an interesting one. I’m not really sure of a good answer, though. Maybe Neon Genesis Evangelion, that one’s pretty blasphemous. I’m more interested in why this guy is looking for anime that religious people really hate. Is he trying to upset a religious person? Maybe he’s religious and is looking for a reason to stop watching anime.

5) young lucifer over a camel and everything burning

Okay, this isn’t a question. I suspect he was directed to my blog because of all the Shin Megami Tensei posts I’ve written, but I wonder what exactly this guy was looking for – maybe some kind of fantasy painting? I’m no Roger Dean, so you’d better check out his website instead. I’m not into fantasy art, really, but Dean’s stuff is much less “dragons and huge-breasted bikini armor women” and much more “otherworldly landscapes.”

6) the bad about abu dhabi

I did write about Abu Dhabi, back when this was also a travel blog, but I never addressed any of its bad sides. So here are two reasons not to travel there:

– It’s harder to buy booze. If you’re a tourist you’re naturally going to be drinking at hotel bars and such, which is totally fine since UAE law allows that. Unless you have a letter from your employer, though, as I understand it, you can’t buy any from the special shops they have. And if you have a Muslim-sounding name, it’s totally impossible even with such a letter. Still, you can get a friend to buy beer for you instead.

– It can be a bit boring. Abu Dhabi isn’t nearly as flashy as Dubai. On the other hand, it is building up, and the rulers of AD are doing their best to bring more attractions to the city, even if some of those attractions are gaudy and fakey-seeming. Maybe they think westerners like that sort of thing. Maybe they’re right.

7) i hate pickled foods

This is also not a question. In fact, unlike the lucifer guy above, I have no idea what this searcher was seeking out. People with similar opinions, I guess? In that case he’s out of luck, because I love pickled foods. Better visit a different blog, guy.

So that’s all, I guess. I’d like to think I’m providing a sort of public service here, but let’s be honest, this was totally worthless. But at least it was entertaining for me, and that’s all that counts.

Retrospective: Civilization II (or, why democracy is a pain in the ass)

On the brink of my fall exams, all my thoughts have to do with copyright and corporate law. This makes me pine for the days of my youth, when I would spend long days playing Civilization II, the second title in Sid Meier’s long-running turn-based world power strategy game. There are few things less painful than watching a horde of 22nd century Mongols hit every major city on your home continent with nuclear weapons, and this thought gives me some small solace as far as my exams are concerned.

I owned the PC original, not the Playstation port.  But this was the best cover image I could find, and they basically look the same anyway.

I owned the PC original, not the Playstation port. But this was the best cover image I could find, and they basically look the same anyway.

Everyone is all about Civilization V right now (and the upcoming Civilization VI.) V is a great edition to the series, but Civ II will always be my favorite title if only for nostalgia reasons. Unlike the hours I spent at my friend’s house playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and fighting over who had to play as Tails, my time with Civ II was not wasted, because the game taught me many valuable lessons. The first lesson I learned was that if you’re the king of an ancient city, you’d better build city walls, otherwise barbarians will plunder and capture it.

The more interesting lessons came later in the game, when you are able to unlock new forms of government through technologies. The world of Civilization II has six forms of government, four of which had various benefits (despotism and monarchy are lousy choices that you have to use early-game and should ditch as soon as possible: they cause your cities to have low production and lots of corruption.) The remaining four forms are the republic, democracy, fundamentalism, and communism.

Being a good American, I thought I’d go for democracy. After all, I love freedom, and nothing says freedom like the power to make a basically meaningless choice between two equally crap candidates from two god-awful political parties. So that’s what I tried out. As it happens, Civ II democracy does have a lot of benefits: you can allocate 100% of your tax revenue to science, which you can’t do with any other form of government, and your citizens’ output is extremely high, meaning more money in the state’s coffers. So why wouldn’t you choose democracy as your form of government?

Because it makes it damn near impossible to wage war. Each of your citizens in a city (represented per every 10,000, then 30,000, then 60,000 people in each city and up accordingly) will become discontent the number of military units you ship away from their home cities, so large-scale deployments are more or less out of the question. And even if they weren’t, the legislature is all too ready to stand in the way of your hawkish initiatives, the bastards.

Well, maybe they're right, because this is usually what your Civ II war will end up looking like: decimated populations, military units disrupting production in enemy cities, and tons of pollution from nuclear weapon use.

Well, maybe they’re right, because this is usually what your Civ II war will end up looking like: decimated populations, military units disrupting production in enemy cities, and tons of pollution from nuclear weapon use.

This was the most interesting aspect of Civ II to me. You can certainly play as a democracy and win the game by dumping 100% of your revenue into science. I never really bothered with this method, though, because to me it was a lot more fun to adopt a communist government instead: you still got pretty good production and high scientific research out of your cities, but without any discontented citizens (if they complain, send them off to Gulag!) or that pesky Senate to get in your way (if any of your Politburo colleagues presents a challenge to you, have him killed and make it look like an assassination, or hold a series of show trials followed by executions.) So you can churn out infantry and armored units and wage war to your heart’s content, or at least as far as your budget allows. You could do more or less the same with a fundamentalist government, though your scientific research took a serious hit.

This is a pretty good way to deal with those damned Mongols who always seem to want to conquer the whole world.

This is a pretty good way to deal with those damned Mongols who always seem to want to conquer the whole world.

To be clear, Civ II doesn’t require you to conquer the world to win the game. An easier, albeit more time-sensitive, victory method is to develop a space program through research dollars and reach Alpha Centauri before any other power. Fulfilling the space race condition does require you to build defenses against nuclear attacks, but you can pretty much put a stop to all aggression against your state short of sneak attacks by beating every other world power to the Great Wall and United Nations wonders, which force your enemies to offer peace terms in negotiations. If you’re going this route, you’re pretty much required to adopt democracy for its massive research and production benefits.

From talking to friends who also played Civ II, though, the communist/fundamentalist brute force method seems like the most common one. Why? The same state practices that I hate in real life and that could and almost have led the real world to disaster and the near-extinction of humanity I happily pursue in my game of Civ, and apparently lots of other normal, non-atrocity-committing people do the same. Is that just because Civ is only a game, or does that mean I’d pursue the same policies if I were a world leader myself?

The Civilization series puts god-like power in your hands as the ruler of a people and eventually of a world power. I think it’s only natural to want to see what it’s like to utterly wreck the planet for humanity and conquer everything by razing and occupying cities and stabbing your friends and allies in the back. But I also think Sid Meier and co. tapped into something dark in the human soul with these games, the part that might find some actual enjoyment in this sort of destruction and misery. After all, guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao existed, and many horrible tyrants before them, and they were all humans just like you and me, not devils out of a fairy tale. And such people still exist today in the form of brutal dictators and murderous terrorists. Who knows what any one of us might do when given absolute power?

In case there's any doubt, however, no, these guys are not my role models.

In case there’s any doubt, however, no, these guys are not my role models.

Sorry, this one was depressing. It must be because of the exams on my mind – I can’t get into a good mood right now. I’ll start writing again after I’m done with them, and hopefully about some lighter topics.

Retrospective: Prince of Persia


When I was a kid, I had a big book with selections from the One Thousand and One Nights. It was naturally filtered for a kid’s consumption, though not totally – some of these ancient tales are seriously bloody, and as a six year-old kid I distinctly remember reading about villainous bastards getting boiled alive in pots (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; seriously, look it up.) I also read about some great adventures that didn’t involve death by boiling oil, though: the tales of Sindbad the Sailor, Ali Baba (minus the boiling part) and Aladdin. I imagined what it would be like to be carried away by a giant bird to a distant land or to discover a magical cave full of treasure.

I think Jordan Mechner must have read the 1001 Nights as a kid too, because Prince of Persia feels a whole lot like one of them (specifically Aladdin) compressed down into game form. It features a vizier-sorcerer guy who is evil (because the vizier is always evil) and wants to marry the young princess, who is in love with the player character (you.) You are the Prince of Persia and your mission is to rescue the Princess from being forced into marriage to a creepy middle-aged magician. You must escape from the dungeon the vizier has thrown you into and make it into the palace, where the Princess is being held.

There are even cutscenes!

There are even cutscenes!

You might know the Prince of Persia franchise from the reboot series it got in the 2000s. If you were curious about where it started, here you are. Jordan Mechner designed this PC platformer to appeal to the newly computer-addicted kids of the early 90s, a group that I belonged to. And it absolutely worked, because Prince of Persia is a great game.

The first screen of the game.  You'll get used to seeing this screen.

The first screen of the game. You’ll get used to seeing this screen.

It’s also a hard, unforgiving, hit-your-fist-against-the-wall-and-cry kind of game. Prince of Persia is a platformer from the age of hard as fuck platformers. The Mega Man series on the NES is a classic example of this sort of game: lots of easy deaths, pitfalls, and traps to kill you, even when you think you’re playing carefully. Prince of Persia follows a similar pattern, only here the obstacles are spike traps that extend from the ground when the Prince approaches them and floor-to-ceiling snap traps that will cut the Prince in half if he’s caught in them.

Why is the Prince a blonde guy?  Are there many blonde people in Persia?  Maybe there are a few.

Why is the Prince a blonde guy? Are there many blonde people in Persia? Maybe there are a few.

Expect to see this a lot. Prince of Persia is a trial-and-error sort of game; you’ll try jumping from platform to platform and hanging onto ledges, and you’ll fail often and fall off ledges and die, fall into traps and die, etc. You’ll also face sword-wielding guards waiting for you in almost every level. Fortunately, the guards are also susceptible to spikes and huge metal teeth. You can use the level’s treacherous nature to kill off guards more easily by pushing them into said traps.

Every guard dreads the "just in front of the spike pit" posting.

Every guard dreads the “just in front of the spike pit” posting.

Thankfully, the game offers continues that are unlimited in number, though upon each death you’ll have to start at the beginning of the level. There’s a catch, however. Remember that beginning cutscene with the hourglass? The vizier/sorcerer/whatever bad guy has given the Princess one hour to decide whether to marry him or TO DIE. So you have an hour to save the Princess. No, not an hour in fake video game time – an actual hour. Sixty minutes.

As you can imagine, this really puts the heat on the player to blaze through all the obstacles in front of him. However, rushing forward without a plan is probably the worst playing method here – you’re guaranteed to constantly fall into the successively more difficult death traps the dungeons and palaces have in store for the Prince. This time pressure is compounded by the many time-limited gate-opening puzzles throughout the game. The later stages demand that the player think creatively to get around some of these obstacles. There’s even a great twist near the end of the game in one of the final boss fights – let’s just say that it’s not a normal boss fight in any sense. The solution to the fight is simple, but it’s nearly impossible to guess your first time out.

Another interesting thing about Prince of Persia: it used an early form of copy protection to prevent people from playing pirated copies beyond the first level - you needed the game manual to proceed.  This was also before the Internet existed as we know it today, so looking the answer up on Google wasn't an option.

Another interesting thing about Prince of Persia: it used an early form of copy protection to prevent people from playing pirated copies beyond the first level – you needed the game manual to proceed. This was also before the Internet existed as we know it today, so looking the answer up on Google wasn’t an option.

Prince of Persia was deservedly a big hit, and as a result, an SNES port of the game came out a few years later. The SNES version isn’t just a port, though – it adds 8 more stages to the game for a total of 20 and gives the player two hours instead of one to make up for the extended length. It also adds background music to the previously soundtrack-less game and throws a lot more detail into the graphics.

The Prince also looks more like an actual Persian now.

The Prince also looks more like an actual Persian now.

Unfortunately, the SNES version also removes something from the original PC game: the blood. You and the guards you kill can (and will) still fall and die on spikes, snappers and so on, but there’s no blood involved. This is a weird sort of censoring that Nintendo was performing in the early 90s in an effort to be seen as family-friendly. More famously, they did the same thing with the Mortal Kombat SNES port. I never understood this. Your character was still committing violence against other people and getting impaled by spikes – what difference did a little blood make?

No, it's not a violent game.  See?  There's no blood in it!

No, it’s not a violent game. See? There’s no blood in it!

But enough of that. Both Prince of Persia versions are good games and well worth your time. I prefer the PC version, probably because it’s the one I played as a kid. The SNES version might be easier to get running, though, if you can install an SNES emulator and find a rom.

A historical note: The vizier in the original Prince of Persia is clearly based on the sorcerer guy from the original Aladdin (I know what you might be thinking, but no – Disney’s Aladdin came out two years later.) The game refers to this guy as “Jaffar”, however, just like the villain of Disney’s Aladdin. Ever since, Jaffar has been the first character to come to mind when the term “evil vizier” comes up.

There was a Jafar ibn Yahya al-Barmaki who was a vizier to the 9th century Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, and he’s believed to be the basis of this character. He wasn’t originally portrayed as a villain, however: Jafar shows up in a few of the 1001 Nights tales as the protagonist, and the historical Jafar was known as a proponent of the sciences and of learning during the Islamic Golden Age. Jafar did end up losing his head as a result of allegations that he was boning the Caliph’s sister, but whether this was true or simply a result of a court intrigue is an open question. The closer you are to the throne, the more danger you’re in. See Game of Thrones for more on that theme.

edit: As it turns out, the timing of this post is pretty good, considering that it’s the second day of Ramadan and lots of Persians – along with millions upon millions of others around the world – are celebrating the month with fasting during the day and feasting at night. I didn’t actually intend it to turn out this way, but since it did – happy Ramadan, whether you’re taking part in it or not. May you successfully avoid spike traps and horrific crushing metal teeth.